History of Sentencing Laws

How did we get here?

Illinois has more than 800 individuals serving life or de facto life sentences for crimes committed in their youth.  

Transfers to Adult Court

  • Until 2016, children as young as 13 years old had to be transferred to adult court for certain crimes.  Even now, for certain crimes, children who are 16 years old at the time the crime is committed must be transferred to adult court. 1  
  • This means that 17 year olds enter adult court from the start; they don’t receive the benefits of a juvenile court proceeding.
  • 95% of individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children never had an opportunity to have their cases considered by a juvenile court. Their cases were heard entirely in adult criminal courts. 
  • Prosecutors may also request discretionary transfers for another set of crimes.
  • Once in adult court, adult sentencing laws apply.

Sentencing Laws

  • In some circumstances, life without the possibility of parole was mandatory for individuals convicted of murder when they were under the age of 18. Specific cases include the murder of a police officer or multiple homicides.  In other circumstances, a life sentence is discretionary. These cases may involve exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior or other factors.
  • Before the Supreme Court’s Miller decision, approximately 80% of individuals who were serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children received mandatory sentences.  
  • Otherwise, a conviction for first-degree murder carries a sentence of 20 to 100 years.
  • Once in adult court, adult sentencing laws apply.

Accountability Theory

  • Illinois has a particularly strict accountability statute.  A child who aids, attempts to aid, or agrees to aid someone else in committing a crime that leads to a murder, such as robbery or burglary, must be found guilty of murder even if the child did not pull the trigger or hit the victim and even if the child was not present at the murder scene.
  • This law is particularly unjust given the scientific evidence showing children’s susceptibility to peer pressure.
  • We don’t know how many individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed when they were children were convicted based on a theory of accountability because Illinois’s criminal legal systems do not maintain adequate data. 

Truth in Sentencing Laws

  • Before the mid-1990s, prisoners generally had the opportunity to earn “good time” credits and other credit for good behavior that allowed them to be released early—often halving the time of their sentences.  These policies promoted rehabilitation and helped states manage the prison population. But a rising crime rate in the late 1980s led to a wave of laws known as truth-in-sentencing that limited the basis for early release.
  • Illinois passed a truth-in-sentencing law in 1998, severely restricting the opportunity for early release.
  • Now in Illinois, anyone convicted of first-degree murder must serve 100% of the sentence imposed.  For most other serious crimes, an individual must serve at least 85% of his or her sentence and is only granted sentence credit at the discretion of the Department of Corrections.

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